EP Unny interview: ‘Cartoonists no more expect understanding from political class’

From being a bank official to a cartoonist who worked without break for 46 years, EP Unny has the clarity that comes from observing a country for far too long, from close quarters.
EP Unny
EP Unny
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Inside the vast room of an ancient club in Thiruvananthapuram where EP Unny stayed for his visit last Christmas, we tip-toed to hideously long armchairs, afraid that a loud swish of the shoe might disturb his focus. We didn’t think what he was doing – giving finishing touches to his newspaper cartoon of the day (Santa and kid peeping at Bethlehem) – was anything less than meditation, the kind Yogis did on farflung mountains. But Unny did not seem to mind the interruption. He drew while he ushered in visitors, gave directions to room service and tipped the bearer.

“It’s bound to affect my routine,” he brushes off our concern as he clicks the ‘send’ button and brings down the laptop lid. Meaning there is no hour of the day we could catch him completely free and disconnected to the work he has been doing for 46 years.

EP Unny at work
EP Unny at work

Unny flinches at the mention of the number 46; makes him sound too old, he says with restraint-free laughter, which we would find him breaking into every few minutes. There is no universal truth in the belief that those who work to make people laugh do not laugh a lot in private, he assures us. Unny’s cartoons do not always linger on the funny side of things. He has mostly been a political cartoonist, or in newspaper terms, an editorial cartoonist who had dabbled with pocket cartoons, which are lighter by nature. Business As Usual, EP Unny’s editorial strip that appears on The Indian Express, has in the first six days of the New Year, covered everything from former army chief General Naravane’s memoir to the satellite mission XPoSat. Unny brought the title and the cartoon with him from the Economic Times that he had worked with during the mid 1990s, a time that was blessed for a cartoonist to join a business paper, he says.

“Politics was changing. [Prime Minister] Narasimha Rao changed the nature of politics by making economics big news, making markets big news,” Unny says. Working in a business publication appeared right up his alley. A lot of topics appeared right up his alley, except, he says, ‘religion’. The only rule he has followed in his cartooning, the only no-go, is to not do anything on religion, because, he says, “I have no knowledge about it.” 

This elicits an obvious line of questioning. But how can he do that post 2014, when religion is all over the place, when religion decides who rules and who gets away with things. No, he corrects us, he does not avoid politics in religion or religion in politics. He just does not talk about religion, the way he does about science or economics or politics. “I have a knowledge barrier,” he says, like it is the simplest explanation. Such kind of clarity about everything including your own limitations is almost enviable. It has to be the conviction that comes from years of observing a country from close quarters, and from away. For the first 12 years of his career, he had been away from Delhi, the epicentre of national politics, hungrily learning all he could about journalism, from a veteran - G Kasturi of The Hindu. 

Delhi days

In ’89, when he left The Hindu, it was only so he could move to Delhi and have access to the politicians in charge of the country. He was lucky with the timing, he says, going to Delhi when [Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi was losing and VP Singh was coming up. He was at first with the Sunday Mail, experimenting with different forms of cartooning - pocket and editorial – and learning to work as a graphic editor. After that, Unny syndicated for five different papers in the chaotic years of the Ram Mandir movement and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. But as American cartoonist Isabel Johnson said, “controversy is a cartoonist’s stuff of life; he starves in times of brotherly love.” 

It was during his stint in the Sunday Mail that Unny developed the recurring character of a kid wearing glasses, in some way reminiscent of Bill Watterson’s Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes), making pronouncements too heavy for a child so young. Unny did not want to have another ‘common man’ character, popularised by the legendary RK Laxman and carried forth by others. “But one day when I stopped by the crossing near AIIMS (in Delhi), I saw a bespectacled little boy selling the afternoon paper. It struck me as interesting, that the kid was so little and the news he sold was so heavy,” Unny says. The kid, he adds, does not have the burden of representing everyone because it is a kid. The bespectacled boy was left behind when Unny joined the Economic Times and adopted again at The Indian Express.

'Business As Usual'
'Business As Usual'From Indian Express, dated Jan 9, 2024

In all these years, the basic language of political cartooning has not changed, Unny says, ‘with its extreme imagery and seemingly simple way of putting things across’. But in other ways it has changed, technology has made a difference. In the old days, you’d be done for the day by noon unless a major event happened and you had to change the toon. 

First stint at journalism

He was barely 21 when he sent his cartoons to The Hindu, soon after the Emergency of 1975-77. Unny was in Madras (now Chennai) working as a bank official on probation after graduating with a degree in Physics. “There were no jobs in India at the time, unless you planned to take medicine or got a job in a bank. You tried and got the first job that came your way. The job I got was a bank officer’s,” he says with the matter-of-factness that seems as much inherent in him, as the humour that meets his words and lines. 

Kasturi urged him to join full time, there were no part-time cartoonists, and Unny could try it out for a year. The Hindu is not where he first published his cartoons. As a student in Palakkad of Kerala, he sent them to legendary cartoonist Shankar’s satirical journal, Shankar’s Weekly. Shankar, to whom Jawaharlal Nehru famously said, "don't spare me" [in his cartoons], not only published Unny's work but paid him more than what a scholarship brought. 

“Shankar was clear that cartoonists should know that they could work and get money out of it,” Unny says. But Shankar’s Weekly folded up during the Emergency and Unny published no cartoons during his days in the bank. People were sent to jail, and one did not know if the Emergency would ever end, Unny says, quoting the controversial court judgement of 1976 that said that the right to life could be suspended during the Emergency.

Last issue of Shankar's Weekly (August 1975)
Last issue of Shankar's Weekly (August 1975)cartoonexhibition.blogspot.com

In ’77 both the Emergency and Unny’s stint with the bank ended. The Hindu became the university he learnt everything from, Unny says, hired straight into the editorial pages. But Kasturi made it clear that Unny should not “follow the editorial” text, that is lazy. That is the only guidance Unny worked with, there would be no one to give him ideas.

Laxman, Shankar, OV Vijayan, Abraham Abu and Rajinder Puri have all clearly played a role in luring Unny into cartooning at a young age. “Aravindan, not a news cartoonist but a graphic story teller, was the first cartoonist I liked. He is an abiding influence,” Unny adds. Abu too figures in all of his discourses about cartooning. He brought Abu into his opinion piece about the sacking of The Guardian's longtime cartoonist Steve Bell for a drawing of the Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu. Abu, Unny writes, had signed his work with 'Abraham' till he joined The Observer. Editor David Astor was worried that a 'telltale Jewish name' like that would create 'a false slant'. That’s how he began to sign, ‘Abu’.

Unny, the writer

It is also in The Hindu that Unny first wrote for a paper, albeit reluctantly. Legendary news editor K Narayanan, who knew Unny’s wanderings into theatres and movie houses and music halls, sent him to watch the premiere of G Aravindan’s Kanchana Sita. KN did not listen to Unny’s many objections and claims of knowing nothing about writing a story, let alone a film review. He came back with three paragraphs and KN said, ‘you write a little better than you draw’. Unny chuckles recounting this but he still claims he is uneasy writing anything, and that, having been a relentless reader all his life, he wouldn't be able to stand bad writing even if it is done by him. 

Last year he wrote seven pieces for the IE, four of them while attending the Telangana election campaigns of November. Whatever magic that lets his fingers add fineness to his cartoon strokes has clearly spilled onto his writing. Refuting Unny’s claims, the words shine through and stand tall among his other creative work. Someone must have persuaded him to keep at it, for Unny has allowed himself to write books with beautiful sketches he made of people and places. His Santa and Scribes: The Making of Fort Kochi is a warm account of everything that has made the island, packed into a distant corner of Ernakulam, a favourite sanctuary for many. Years earlier, he had put all of Kerala together into Spices and souls, described as a “doodler’s journey through the state”. 

In his 2015 book, RK Laxman - Back with a punch, about RK Laxman, Unny however remained loyal to words. Here is a snippet from the intro of the book:

Cartoons have a history of growing with cities and Mumbai was a city waiting for its cartoonist. Laxman stepped in to find a willing mass of newspaper readers battling everyday issues. His cartoons told them that the chaos was common to all; there was nothing personal about it and added, for good measure, that much of the chaos was thanks to the rulers in faraway Delhi. That extra disdain for the national capital and its self-centred politics sharpened the wicked pencil.

"A great cartooning career [Abu's] began slant-proofed. An equally illustrious one just ended on a perceived slant," Unny wrote in his column when Steve Bell was fired for a cartoon that paid tribute to an older one by David Levine during the Vietnam War. David Levine  illustrated US President Lyndon Johnson’s scar from a gallbladder surgery in the shape of a map of Vietnam. Bell’s cartoon had put Netanyahu in Johnson’s place, who with a scalpel was performing a surgery on his body, cutting it in the shape of Gaza. 

Cartoonists and controversies

Names of cartoonists always popped up in public discussions for the wrong reasons, he said during a speech he made last November, for the Kerala Assembly Book Fair. Showing a World War II cartoon by the legendary British artist David Low, who had influenced most of the early cartoonists in India last century, Unny said that the words used in that strip – fascism, Hitler, Nazi – are unfortunately still relevant in today's politics. 

But Unny does not want to lament about the fascist and media-curbing approaches of the Indian government of the day. Attacks on cartoonists, curbs and court cases against journalists, have always existed, he says. "All these fellows will stand by you when they are in the opposition. All of them without exception will repress you when they come to power. I can't think of a single opposition leader whom I am 100% confident will not repress the press if made the Prime Minister. I can't think of one state leader or national leader who will not do what the government of today is doing to the press. Perhaps, Rahul Gandhi will not,"  he adds as an afterthought.

What made cartooning difficult post 2014, he says, is a different kind of problem: fake news. "Plus the one-sided reporting by television channels. We have a Prime Minister who has not done a press conference, we have political personalities in the government who do not talk to the press. You don't know the mind of these people. Caricature is not just a physical distortion of someone’s face but also about what someone feels like. Barring the PM and the Home Minister, the External Affair Minister and Finance Minister, few have been in the public eye for any length of time to create any enduring impression. Most of these people become non-cartoonable."

Cartoonists do not expect understanding from the political class any longer, only democratic help from the courts, he says. Unny hails the 2018 judgement of Justice Swaminathan in which he upheld a cartoonist’s right to ridicule. Except the time that the Janata ruled post Emergency, no one has talked proactively about press freedom, he says.

It is worse for cartoonists, who are sometimes not covered by the generic ‘journalist’ tag. He recounts an experience of a senior parliamentarian from Kerala complaining after Unny covered his election campaign, about a cartoonist being sent to cover his election. But Unny takes it all in his stride, he does not even require a law in place to protect him, just good conventions will do, he says. The laughter, as he says this, grows on the others – friends joining him for a Sunday lunch. He does it all, he says – meet friends when he visits places, take his annual trip to the Margazhi festival in Chennai, watch films, and religiously solve the Wordle puzzle in the afternoon. As long as he is not asked to ‘write’ a review, he is happy. 

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